Engineering registrar shares insight on the merits of self-regulation
Matthew Oliver, the chief regulatory officer
with APEGA, says that self-regulation is
the most effective model available to
Here’s a riddle for you. What do you get when you take an engineer with experience investigating military aircraft incidents and put him in charge of his professional association’s regulatory oversight? Answer: A very thorough understanding of the subject.
The engineer in question is Matthew Oliver, the chief regulatory officer and deputy registrar at the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA). When he took over regulatory oversight at APEGA five years ago, Oliver initiated a review of the regulatory practices being employed throughout Canada and around the world and completed a paper on the subject. His conclusion: public safety is best served when professions are self-regulated.
“Having looked at, for almost seven years now, all of the different regulatory approaches that exist out there, I think that self-regulation is the most effective and efficient regulatory framework that exists,” Oliver says.
Self-regulation is imperfect, just as any system that humans build is imperfect, Oliver says, but it’s the system that provides the best internal checks and balances to safeguard public safety while also providing the best value in terms of public dollars spent.
“And also, because we are not funded by government, we are not beholden to government priorities or government budgets, so if you look at the overall public value equation that a self-regulatory profession brings to society, there are very, very few negative points,” Oliver says.
One of the reasons why self-regulation works is it places the obligation of protecting the public in the hands of the professionals who best understand that profession.
“They are the ones who are best situated to understand the risks as they emerge … with things like developing technology,” he says.
A model that is often suggested or employed as a substitute for self-regulation is government-based regulation. This is the model being proposed for the teaching profession by Bill 15, which would remove professional regulatory functions from the ATA and transfer them to a government-controlled teaching profession commissioner.
Oliver says this model creates a risk of subjecting the process to competing government interests and funding priorities.
Oliver points to the case of the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and the catastrophic failure of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft. Investigators traced the aircraft’s failure back to government cuts to the FAA budget, which led to the FAA laying off its own technical experts and relying instead on technical experts provided by the regulated industry.
“You get to the point where the technical experts decide they’re not going to fully fulfill their independent obligations to public safety, that they’re going to focus on their employers’ priorities first. Then you end up with these massive failures creeping through the safety net that’s supposed to exist,” Oliver says.
“I’m not going to say that self-regulation eliminates that because the self-regulated profession can become introspective and self-interested in the same way if they don’t keep that primary focus on public safety, but when you have independent bodies inside the regulator that are making those decisions, it’s a lot harder to [revert to self-interest].”
One of the findings of the investigation into the 737 Max was that senior management at the FAA shut down the recommendations of technical specialists because they were going to cost Boeing too much money.
“I don’t have that kind of power at APEGA,” Oliver said.
Through the Engineering and Geoscience Professions Act, APEGA assesses professional competence and conduct through a practice review board — an independent board of senior professionals — that comes under the oversight of the organization’s elected council and operates independently from senior management.
“Even as a senior person at APEGA, I couldn’t infringe on their legislative authority, because the system has all those independent paths and groups built into it,” Oliver said.
This highlights one of the strengths of self-regulated professions.
“It’s really, really hard to get insular or self-interested, unless you can get everybody that’s involved to do it all at the same time, and it’s a lot less likely in a self-regulatory context than it is, for example, in a government regulatory context like we saw with the FAA and the 737 Max,” Oliver says.
At the ATA, teacher discipline is handled in a similar fashion as at APEGA. As outlined by the Teaching Profession Act, members of the ATA’s professional conduct committees are selected by Provincial Executive Council. The act requires that every complaint be investigated within 30 days. Hearings and their resulting reports are open to the public.
While the ATA does represent members in matters of employment and collective bargaining, the investigation and prosecution of professional conduct complaints is handled separately, and the Association does not represent members who are subject to its professional discipline processes.
“While the UCP government has been saying that our dual role represents a conflict of interest, our structure has been created purposely to prevent such a conflict,” said executive secretary Dennis Theobald. “As professionals, teachers want to see that teachers who behave inappropriately are held accountable and, if necessary, removed from the profession. Our discipline process does that fairly and efficiently.”
Oliver said his experience investigating aircraft crashes has helped solidify his support of self-regulation.
“I have a long background in accident investigation — I did aircraft accidents in the military and I did forensic engineering for six years after I left the military — and I have to say that there is almost always a cause factor in serious accidents that involves a willful oversight of something where somebody has made the decision, ‘we’re not going to act on that because it’s too expensive or too difficult.’ And one of the reasons why I’m such a big fan of self-regulation is because it’s the best system I’ve ever come across that puts in place the mechanisms to counter that self-interest.” ❚
OTHER SELF REGULATORS
Other professions in Alberta that are self-regulated by an independent association include architects, chartered professional accountants and veterinarians. Each of these professions is defined by specific legislation that outlines the structures and processes to be employed in policing their members’ conduct to protect the public interest. Each of these associations combines regulatory functions with representation functions within the same organization.